Making Sense of the Tablet Theory


Much of the case against the Tablet Theory for early Genesis (also called the Wiseman Hypothesis) is that it seems to break down as one nears the end of the toledot phrases in Genesis chapter thirty-seven. I propose that these difficulties can be explained as an artifact of the circumstances that Isaac and Jacob found themselves in as discussed below…

The eighth and ninth colophons are those of Ishmael and Isaac respectively. These begin in verses 25:12 and 25:19.

Here again the Wiseman hypothesis falls into difficulty. If one is to rigidly adhere to the theory, Ishmael must tell the story of Abraham and Isaac that of Ishmael. But I don’t think that’s what is happening here. These two colophons are so close together that it would be reasonable to take them as one. That is to say, Ishmael and Isaac together shared the honor of owning the account of their great father Abraham. It is the story of both of them. So just like Noah’s sons, they shared in owning the account. This is one account with a double colophon. It is split, one for each of the owners, just as Abraham’s line is split by the descendants of these two men.

Now it does appear that both of them were recorded after the death of Ishmael, but I can see the wisdom of Isaac taking pains to share credit in order to avoid causing offense to Ishmael’s numerous and warlike descendants. If it is viewed as one shared account with two colophons then we must notice that the description of Ishmael is lengthy and elaborate. It takes great pains to identify him and connect him to his many sons.

By contrast, the part mentioning Isaac is a single terse verse which does not name his offspring. This has every mark of a young son who inherited the bulk of his rich father’s wealth taking great pains not to give his pillaging half-nephews a reason to take offense. That was precisely the situation in which Isaac found himself! Conclusion- the seventh and eighth colophons are really one double colophon because the account had two formal “owners”. Isaac did most or all of the writing, but shared the credit for the ownership.

There is a similar situation with the last three occasions in which Genesis uses the “these are the generations of” catch-phrase indicating a colophon. This is Genesis 36:1 where the tenth colophon (if one counts the prior two separately) is that of Esau, as is the eleventh in verse 36:9. The last colophon, fittingly the twelfth is that of Jacob, in Genesis 37:2a.

It is not credible to maintain that it is Esau who tells the story of Jacob’s life and Jacob who tells the story of Esau’s. It is not credible to say that Esau owned the account from the second part of chapter 25 all the way through chapter 36. Yet this is what one must do if one rigidly applies the Wiseman formula.
Notice though that Jacob found himself in a situation much like that of his father Isaac. His powerful neighboring sibling, with whom he had had mixed relations at best, was the eldest son and possibly expected the right to own the account of the family history. Like his father, he and his brother buried their father together just before the colophons start.

If I am right about the Isaac and Ishmael colophons being one account with two owners, maybe Jacob decided to handle the problem the same way his father did. That is, the two would “share” credit in the text, and the one who did not actually write it would not only be treated fairly in the text but their accomplishments would be elaborated on at length within the colophon.

What I am suggesting is that it started out with verse 36:1 and verse 37:1-2a listing them as the co-owners of the long account which begins in chapter 25. Then just as Isaac is careful to list all of Ishmael’s family, so Jacob goes overboard and inserts everything he can find on Esau’s family into the text of the colophon. Traditionally, a few immediate descendants of the owner might be listed in order to help nail down the identity of the owner, but in this case the practice was taken to extravagant lengths to make sure that none of his powerful kin took offense.

So a straight-up colophon would look like this….

“Now these are the generations of Esau, who is Edom. These are the generations of Jacob.”

That is 36:1 and 37:2a put together. A shared colophon just like Isaac and Ismael did before. But Jacob then inserted the long account about Esau in between those two sentences. That is represented by the Esau colophon in verse 36:9. This 2nd Esau colophon could be from a tablet which had a narrative on one side (verses 2-8) and a long list of prominent offspring and allies on the back (verses 10-43 of chapter 36) with the colophon on the edge. It would be sort of like the main author of a book giving a minor co-author a big plug at the end.

Jacob wanted to emphasize that his brother was a great man with many prominent offspring. It was the least he could do considering how things went between them. Even though Esau sold Jacob his birthright it may not have been clear that writing and co-owning the family history was part of the deal. If Jacob wrote basically everything from the back half of chapter 25 up to the end of chapter 35 as I suspect, he would want to try and make up for it by playing up the greatness of the “co-owner” who got iced out of the deal. That is consistent with Jacob’s character I am afraid.

After emphasizing that Esau was Edom so much, Jacob probably thought he should at least mention what his land was, thus he put in verse 37:1 before claiming ownership of the account.

After Genesis 37:2 we no longer find the phrase “these are the generations of” in Genesis. That is not a coincidence. From here, the story of the Hebrew race passes to Joseph. Joseph will be trained in the Egyptian way of documenting things. He will be influenced by that culture, as will his brothers once they are brought into the land. One can easily see at this point how Moses with his heirloom of clay tablets written in cuneiform or something like it might be comparable to our getting some eight millimeter film of our famous great-great grandparents. We would treasure the information while understanding that it was time to transcribe it onto a newer medium.

The Tablet Theory and Hints from the Text of Scripture